Every year since I began writing this column, I have paused in February to reflect on the Black experience. February is Black History Month and while I regret that too many of us only think about Blacks and their contributions during this month, I must admit it is better than not celebrating our Blackness at all.
Over the years, I have presented subjects that were educational as well as controversial. Whenever I write about where we were as a race, where we are today and where we may be in the future, I am reminded of words from my father. He would frequently remind me, “If you have no idea where you have been, it is hard to know where you are going and when you have arrived.” I have written about Tom Lynch and his strategies to control slaves; a strategy which remains evident and true today with regard to how we treat and interact with one another. A column in which I expressed admiration for Uncle Tom annoyed some readers, and my fondness for the “Amos’n’Andy” television show caused some to conclude I had lost my mind. Last year, I devoted my column to my own Black memorabilia collection. This year, I shall continue sharing things that are educational and also controversial by reviewing Black games from back in the day.
Some friends and colleagues were surprised that there were Black-themed games years ago. I suspect that some of you are too. However, if you think real hard, you probably will recall the “Sambo Dart Game;” which featured a metal board and a spring gun with rubber-tipped arrows. This dartboard showed a stereotypical image of a Sambo with targets and numbers surrounding him. I doubt seriously if you know of “Neddy N-------‘s Jigsaw Puzzle.” This typical racist game from the past is a jigsaw puzzle about the size of legal paper with a Black man with stereotypical features at the beginning of a maze. In the middle of the maze is a watermelon, and you must draw lines to show the Black man’s route from the start to the watermelon. Other jigsaw puzzles, neither of which I have ever seen, are “Chopped Up N-------s” and a 1905 puzzle entitled “Woozy Jig,” where Black men in formal evening clothes are dancing in a wild manner.
While these were offensive, some of the most racially aggressive games were found in carnivals, seashore resorts and fairgrounds. Can you believe that there were such games as “Dump the N-------,” “African Dip” or “Coon Dip,” in which hitting the target caused a plank where a Black person sat to be dumped into a tank below? There were also games with similar names except that a Black man or an image of one would stick his head through a hole on a painted canvas, usually with a cotton plantation scene. Players would attempt to hit him in the head with a ball or some other object. Now, just consider the names of some other games with outrageous names, like: “Garden Aunt Salley,” “Hit Me Hard,” “Rastus,” “Little Darky Shooting Gallery,” “Jolly Coon Race,” The Picaninny Toy Target” and the “Darky Tenpins.” There were also books as well as a game of the “Ten Little N----- Boys.”
Most board games were played with dice and paper money. They contained a beginning and an end with Black figures portrayed in an extremely derogatory nature. Most of these involved a chase of the Black person by a white person or an animal. As you would expect, the Black person always lost. Denis Mercier has addressed this issue in a web-posted document entitled, “From Hostility to Reverence: 100 Years of Black Imagery in Games.” He points out, “Games of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected racial attitudes ranging from the benign to the aggressively violent. Although some of the games of the first period stereotyped African Americans as comical entertainers, many revealed an intense white hostility toward Blacks.” It is interesting to note that Mercier’s message argues that Blacks enjoyed the negativity directed at them; they felt no pain from the assaults because no real pain was inflicted. You may be troubled to learn that this negativity toward Blacks only started to disappear in the past 25 years, as Blacks invented and marketed games themselves.
As a serious collector of Black memorabilia, I have many Black games in my collection; many stereotypical. Many years ago, I had the opportunity to purchase a pinball game at a local toy show. It was not your typical metal pinball machine, but one made of wood with Black images on the bumpers, targets and table section displays. The figures were both demeaning and insulting. It was not the price, but the size that caused me not to acquire this item. I questioned how I would get it home and where I could display it without taking up too much room. I. saw it only once and have never seen it again in my more than 30 years of collecting Black stereotypical artifacts. It is one Black collectible I wish I had purchased.
In 1970, Psychology Today published a board game, based on some of the concepts of the game of Monopoly, where you decide at the start whether to play as a Black or as a white person. The game, “Black and White”, is essentially a property-buying game. The races compete against one another in making economic progress, but the odds are clearly stacked against Black people by having different rules. Whites start out with $1million and Blacks with $10,000. The rules were similar to life for Blacks back in the day; Whites could buy property on any part of the board, but Blacks were limited to certain areas. If whites ran out of money, they declared bankruptcy. If you ran out of money while playing as a Black person, you went on welfare. It was controversial back then, but was conceived as a painless way for middle-class whites to understand Black life .
Another game in the style of Monopoly from the late 1960s is “Godfrey Cambridges’s 50 Easy Steps to The White House,” about a Black man running for president in 1968. Players move along the board to get to the White House. Stops on the board include “Sorry! The apartment is rented”; “Your son intermarries, go to Africa in search of your roots (identity), lose two turns”; and “You were seen lunching with Stokely, Go to Jail.” It was billed as “A great new game for discriminating people of all races!”
Are any of you familiar with the “Fat Albert” game? Or, what about “The Harlem Globetrotters” and “The Jackson Five” games? Then there is “The X Game” from 1991. It is a cooperative game in which players, rather than competing against each other, must cooperate to win. Everyone works together to achieve a common goal. The objective is to beat the system in order to win the game. This game is used to represent Malcolm X’s philosophy of Black nationalism. Negative images of Blacks in games disappeared entirely during the civil rights years as stereotypical images became too controversial for toy and game makers. In recent years, we’ve started to see Black Americans surface in games. Through their growing political and organizing clout, they could demand games that encouraged Black pride. So, in 1974, we saw games such as the one created by a mainstream manufacturer, ED-U-Cards, a division of KPB Industries of Bethlehem, Pa. which offered a flash card set, ‘Famous Black People in American History.” The game involves showing a charcoal portrait of a famous Black person, giving a clue and asking for that person’s identity. But, much of the change in focus and the demand to include positive images of Blacks in games was met by Black entrepreneurs. We did as we had once done; we did not sit around and beg others to do for us, we did for ourselves by creating and producing our own Black-themed games.
As we celebrate Black History Month, it is clear from the “Little Black Sambo” games of years ago to games like the 1987 “Black American High Achiever” that things have significantly changed. In spite of where we are today, I believe we should always pause and revisit the tway things used to be. Some people argue that these negative games represent an era that should be left alone. Others, however, like me, do not want to experience the days when these negative games indicated the state of affairs in America, but also stress that they are things they do not want to ever forget. They believe, especially in rearing their children, that these negative games and other conditions played a major role in shaping the character of America and the state of mind of Blacks and all races and groups in this country. So, we must make visits to the past such as the one I have taken in this column. For in many respects, life today was shaped by much of what we did and what others did to us, back in the day.